The West Must Ban the Burqa and Nix the Niqab

Licia Corbella, a Canadian journalist, visited Afghanistan in 2003. She writes in a June 2009 Calgary Herald article of her interactions with Afghan women. Every woman she asked said she hated the burqa. Many of them, never having felt sunlight on their faces, had lost teeth and hair to Vitamin D deprivation. But the worst aspect of the burqa is its depersonalizing effect. Corbella writes:

Women in burqas don’t seem human. After just a short while in Afghanistan, women in their blue burqas seem like ghostly apparitions devoid of a face, individuality, or humanity.

At first, when my translators would tap me on the shoulder and suggest I “take a picture of that burqa over there,” I would gently correct them by saying, “you mean, that WOMAN in the burqa?” In a couple of days, however, I too was referring to them as simply burqas.

For conservatives who can’t get past the sanctity of the individual’s right to freedom of expression, they might reconsider full coverage as less an expression issue than a public decency issue.

Normally we think of decency as a unilateral phenomenon involving too little body coverage. In private we may wear or not wear whatever we want. But we don’t allow public nudity, and there are bodily functions that are natural or appropriate in private that we do not permit in public.

In the last few years, since I have been exposed to the sight of real women in full cover walking in my own neighborhood -- not many, but it didn’t take many to stimulate interrogation of my reflexive discomfort in their presence -- I had never considered that decency is not a static phenomenon, but runs along a spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum is public nakedness. It’s forbidden. There are nudists for whom nakedness is a philosophical imperative, but they have always been, and will always be, a quirky fringe group at the margins of society. They compliantly confine themselves to designated enclaves because they understand it is unreasonable for them to claim the right to impose the sight of their nakedness on others for whom public nakedness is indecent.

For the same reason, there is no need to tell people they may wear bikinis on a beach but not in a courthouse or house of worship. Everyone is well aware of the rising stringency of propriety codes according to the degree of gravitas conferred by the setting or institution.

Moving to the opposite side of the spectrum, we find that the psychological discomfort we feel in seeing a person with exposed genitals in public is similar to what we feel in the presence of someone with the face fully covered. Outside of ski slopes, men in ski masks are threatening and nobody has a problem saying so. Curiously, although not in the same sense -- we don’t fear physical aggression from covered women as we do covered men -- people also find covered women psychologically threatening. But we don’t like to admit that, because we can’t articulate why this should be so.

I have come to believe that our discomfort with covered women relates directly to our sense of public decency. On the naked end of the decency spectrum, there is too much intimacy for comfort; on the fully covered end there is too much mystery for comfort. Too little coverage provokes disgust; too much coverage provokes anxiety. Nakedness projects the uncomfortable image of the human being as an animal; full coverage evokes the image of the human being as an object. That is why most people intuitively adjust their clothing to the middle of the decency spectrum to meet the psychological needs of their fellows -- and to have their own met in return.

Standards of decency are decided by communities, not by academic theorists or politicians. Or should be. Prejudices around decency are a useful fact of life in communities, because living together in psychological comfort is important to a feeling of neighborly security. If you cannot smile at a neighbor and expect to be smiled at in return, you are not inhabiting a wholesome social climate.

It is no use pretending fully covered women do no harm to the social fabric. They arouse internal disturbance: a mixture of pity, guilt, fear (of the men who own them), and resentment, the last because in any encounter with them we feel shunned. Thus any Westerner privileged to live according to the value of gender equality, as most of us do, who says that the sight of a woman in full coverage neither upsets nor offends him or her is either lying or has no heart.

The question of full coverage is not one of tolerance, or rights, or choice, or freedom of expression. It is a question of social and civic propriety. No citizens can be said to be free if their faces are not open to reading by their fellows. And no citizens can be psychologically comfortable sharing public space with citizens who refuse to be seen.

It is naive to believe that veiled women raised according to medieval patriarchal codes of gender relations will somehow muster a sense of moral agency robust enough to throw off their cover without the protective arm of the law between them and the wrathful kinship groups they have “shamed” by their autonomy. The escalation of honor killings in the West should leave us in no doubt about the price Sharia-bound women pay for freedom.

And without exception, women in full cover live in accordance with Sharia law. Moreover, they are in thrall to men who would like to see Sharia law officially recognized in the countries they inhabit and full coverage extended to all women.

For these and other reasons Sharia law is anathema to democracy. Therefore, for our political and collective psychological health, we should support full coverage, Sharia’s most visible symbol, being banned in France and in all Western countries without guilt. Democratic Muslims will thank us for such a ban, and as for undemocratic Muslims -- well, if democracy wasn’t what they wanted, why are they here in the first place?